CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A space capsule hurtled toward the moon for the first time in 50 years Wednesday, following a thunderous launch of NASA’s most powerful rocket during a dress rehearsal for astronaut flights.
There was no one aboard this debut flight, just three test dummies. The capsule is on its way to a wide orbit around the moon and then returns to Earth in about three weeks with a landing in the Pacific Ocean.
After years of delays and billions in cost overruns comes the Space Launch System rocket roared into the sky, lifted off Kennedy Space Center at 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of thrust, and reached 100 mph (160 km/h) in seconds. The Orion capsule sat on top and, less than two hours into the flight, broke away from Earth’s orbit toward the moon.
“It was pretty overwhelming,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “We’re going to explore the sky, and this is the next step.”
The moon shot follows nearly three months of irritating fuel leaks that left the missile bouncing between the hangar and the platform. Forced back in by Hurricane Ian at the end of September, the missile held out when Nicole flew through last week with wind gusts exceeding 80 mph (130 km/h). Although the wind did some damage, managers gave the go-ahead for the launch.
An estimated 15,000 people gathered at the launch site, with thousands more lining the beaches and roads outside the gates, to witness NASA’s long-awaited sequel to Project Apollowhen 12 astronauts walked on the moon between 1969 and 1972. Crowds also gathered outside NASA centers in Houston and Huntsville, Alabama, to watch the spectacle on giant screens.
The rocket sent a huge trail of flames into space, with a crescent moon glowing brightly and buildings shaking.
The launch marked the beginning of NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program, named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister. The space agency aims to send four astronauts around the moon on the next flight, in 2024, and land humans there as early as 2025.
“For the Artemis generation, this is for you,” cried launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, referring to anyone born after Apollo. She later told her team, “You’ve earned your place in history.”
The 322-foot (98-meter) SLS is the most powerful rocket built by NASA, with more thrust than the space shuttle or the mighty Saturn V that took humans to the moon. A series of hydrogen fuel leaks plagued both the summer launch attempts and countdown tests. A new leak broke out at a new spot during Tuesday night’s refueling, but an emergency team tightened the faulty valve on the pad. Then a US Space Force radar station went down, resulting in another battle, this time to replace an Ethernet switch.
‘The rocket, it’s alive. It creaks. It makes vent noises. It’s pretty scary,” said Trent Annis, one of three men who entered the hazardous area to repair the leak. “My heart was beating. My nerves were gone.”
Orion should reach the moon on Monday, more than 370,000 kilometers from Earth. After the capsule gets within 80 miles (130 kilometers) of the moon, it will enter a widespread orbit that extends about 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) beyond.
The $4.1 billion test flight will last 25 days, about the same as when the crew will be on board. The space agency plans to push the spacecraft to its limits and uncover any problems before astronauts strap on. The test dummies – NASA calls them moonikins – are equipped with sensors to measure vibrations, acceleration and cosmic rays, among other things.
Nelson warned during this demo “things will go wrong”. A few minor issues surfaced early in the flight, though preliminary indications were that the boosters and motors were performing well.
“Personally, I’m not going to rest well until we’re safely on landing and recovery,” said mission manager Mike Sarafin.
The rocket would have run dry by 2017. Government watchdogs estimate that NASA will have spent $93 billion on the project by 2025.
Ultimately, NASA hopes to establish a base on the moon and send astronauts to Mars in the late 2030s or early 2040s.
Many hurdles still need to be overcome. The Orion capsule will only take astronauts to lunar orbit, not to the surface.
NASA has hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to develop Starship, the 21st century answer to Apollo’s lunar lander. Starship will shuttle astronauts back and forth between Orion and the lunar surface, at least on its maiden voyage in 2025. The plan is to put Starship and eventually other companies’ landers in orbit around the moon, ready for use when new Orion stop crews.
Repeating an argument made in the 1960s, Duke University historian Alex Roland questions the value of human spaceflight, saying that robots and remote-controlled spacecraft could get the job done more cheaply, more efficiently, and more safely.
“In all these years, no evidence has emerged that justifies the investment we’ve made in human spaceflight — other than the prestige that comes with this conspicuous consumption,” he said.
NASA is waiting for this test flight to be over before introducing the astronauts who will be on the next one and those who will follow in the footsteps of Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Most of NASA’s corps of 42 active astronauts and 10 interns hadn’t even been born when Apollo 17 moonwalkers Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed the era 50 years ago next month.
“We’re jumping out of our spacesuits with excitement,” said astronaut Christina Koch before the launch.
After a nearly year-long mission to the International Space Station and an all-female spacewalk, Koch, 43, is on NASA’s shortlist for a lunar flight. So does astronaut Kayla Barron, 35, who finally witnessed her first rocket launch, not counting her own a year ago.
“It took my breath away and I tore it up,” said Barron. “What a great achievement for this team.”
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